I, along with other supporters of Israel, have for the past few years rightfully been critical of President Obama and his position on the Middle East, beginning with his disastrous Cairo speech and his misguided decision to combine a wooing of the Arab world with a decision to put U.S. pressure first and foremost on Israel. Particularly, Obama chose to make settlements the most important issue regarding the peace process.
The major change during his two days in Israel was a decisive shift in approach, which many of his ardent supporters have been loath to acknowledge. This shift was succinctly pointed out by veteran foreign affairs analyst Leslie Gelb:
In Israel, Obama went further than ever in trying to placate Bibi’s position. The president said that the issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the hottest button for Palestinians, should not be dealt with in advance of negotiations, as the Palestinians demand, but should be placed on the table only after the negotiating groundwork has been set. Indeed, almost everything Obama has said on this trip backpedals on his earlier priority of freezing those settlements. This is a body blow to Abbas and his supporters that can be assuaged only by a real Washington push for negotiations, one that involves U.S. positions disliked by Bibi and bound to cause moaning among many Israelis.
If one puts this truth first, Obama’s speech the next day to leftist students may be seen as the other side of the coin. Roger L. Simon is not alone in responding favorably to Obama’s words. It was, as David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel perceptively points out, a “left-wing Zionist speech,” perhaps the most cogent statement of such a viewpoint that the Israeli public has heard since the old days of Habonim and Hashomer Hatzair, the two most important Zionist left-wing youth groups of the ’50s, ‘6os, and Israel’s early period of labor Zionism.
Obama may indeed have stirred the hearts of the hand-picked leftist students who were present at the event, but garnering their wild applause is one thing; the hard reality of trying to make peace with the Palestinians, led by Abbas — not to speak of Hamas — is another. As Horovitz says, the problem is that Obama’s utopian vision “is hardly consensual”:
This speech was the “reset” of Obama’s personal relationship with Israel. It was the speech in which he showed his knowledge of Israel, quoting its religious texts and its political visionaries, recalling the suffering of exile, the yearning for the homeland. It was the speech in which he acknowledged the extent of the hostility tiny Israel has faced and continues to face in this region, the relentless series of wars it has been forced to fight for its survival.
He knew, he told the listening Israelis, that you live in a region in which many have rejected your very right to exist. He knew, he said, that the security of the Jewish people in Israel cannot be taken for granted. He knew Israel had seized opportunities for peace with Egypt and Jordan under Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, and tried hard to make peace with the Palestinians, including under Ehud Olmert at Annapolis. He knew that the 2000 Lebanon pullout and the 2005 Gaza withdrawal had been met with rocket fire, and that “the hand of friendship” had too often been met with rejectionism and terror.
Having set this up to woo Israelis, the president then moved on to tell them to keep working for the Palestinian state that would be in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians, and which he argued the Palestinians deserved as a matter of justice.
And that is the rub.
It was a vision that most Israelis have moved away from since the scores of times the evidence proved even to the peace camp in Israel that they had no real partner for peace on the other side. Indeed, just a few days earlier in an interview with Russian TV, the same Mahmoud Abbas who met with Obama told his interviewer that there is “there is no difference between our policies and those of Hamas.”
The crowds demonstrating against the meeting of the Palestinian Authority leader with Barack Obama is the real face and position of the people he represents, and when Abbas is not speaking to an American president or an American audience, his rhetoric about what he believes is the opposite of what he conveys to the gullible. I agree with Horovitz’s sad but true conclusion:
Emotionally, Obama’s speech was profoundly affecting, and will likely have moved many Israelis, shifting their opinion of him, winning them over. Shifting them politically? That’s something quite different.
On this, I refer our readers to the always perceptive and on-target analysis of Commentary’s Jonathan S. Tobin, who writes:
In the wake of President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli leftists are hoping for a new lease on life for a peace process that was left for dead by the country’s voters in January. But given the unenthusiastic reaction from Palestinians to the speech, any idea that negotiations will be revived anytime soon seems far-fetched. That’s especially true since most of those cheered by the president’s call for a new commitment to peace ignored the fact that the one tangible shift in American policy was that Obama backpedaled on his desire to force Israel to freeze settlement building. Much to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s displeasure, he also echoed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for negotiations without preconditions.
What Tobin goes on to write is something that applies to all conservatives who have been Obama’s critics, including me:
But one thing has undoubtedly changed in the aftermath of the presidential visit to Israel: Barack Obama’s image as an antagonist of the Jewish state. … But after the stirring Zionist rhetoric uttered by the president during his stay in the Jewish state, it’s simply no longer possible for his opponents to brand him as a foe of Israel or as someone who is unsympathetic to its plight. Though his appeals for peace were addressed to the wrong side of the conflict, it just isn’t possible to ask any American president to have said more.
Some will still blanch at this conclusion, and will argue that Obama is posturing, that he is lying, and that one cannot trust anything he says. They will argue that he means to curb his opposition among Jews in America, and that it is nothing but cover for a new policy that will again disarm us, lead to a tilt to the Arab side, and end with new attempts to force Israel to create self-destructive policies enabling rogue states like Iran.
If Tobin is right that Obama has gone “some way toward rectifying his mistakes” of the past four years, it is our job to encourage him, praise him, and to help him keep on this new path rather than attack and demonize him. Especially, as Tobin says, since Obama has “endorsed the Zionist narrative and rationale about Israel’s founding and its purpose,” it marks a new phase in the president’s approach to the Middle East.
Perhaps Obama has learned something. Perhaps his frustration at the intransigence of the Palestinian side has made him understand that he was moving in a fruitless direction, and that they were no more likely to make concessions because he was president than did they meet Ehud Olmert even halfway when he offered them the most concessions of any previous Israeli prime minister.
As Tobin argues, Obama is now more like Bill Clinton, who warmly supported Israel but tried to make the peace process work, than Jimmy Carter, whom for a while it appeared Obama was trying to emulate. Yet problems persist. Obama, it appears to many observers, is a pacifist at heart. It seems — as a well-known D.C. journalist said to me the other day — that he feels in his gut that nothing is worse than war, and that avoiding it is something that must be done above all else. If that is true, then he does not abide by those who claim that by preparing for war a nation has the best chance to attain peace, especially since our enemies are moving quickly towards a position that will make a conflict more than likely.
Will Obama really take military action of some sort against Iran if that nation moves towards attaining a nuclear weapon? He says the right things, but no one but he knows whether, at the appropriate red line, he will do what has to be done. Will he simply establish yet another red line that cannot be crossed, until it is too late?
On the matter of the Palestinian Authority, will Obama finally acknowledge that Mahmoud Abbas created a monster whose bureaucracy and leadership does not want peace with Israel, will never give up the “right of return,” and whose educational system teaches the Palestinian youth that all of Israel should be Palestinian and that Jews must be destroyed?
Will Obama continue to be blind to the reality of what the PA stands for, and what Abbas says behind his back and to others? Will he eventually give up the fiction that Abbas is in any sense a partner for peace? That so many argue Abbas is the best partner Israel may ever have is in and of itself terribly sad commentary.
Tobin is right when he ends with the following:
Though it would have been more useful for him to preach peace to Palestinian students than to a handpicked group of left-wing Israelis, the lengths to which he went to demonstrate his support for Israel must be acknowledged and applauded.
Of course J Street will do just that, but we must move one step ahead: use his words to push him further towards reality, and not approach him as many of us have done — as an enemy of Israel.
How Obama acts regarding Iran and Abbas will show if his deeds match his words. But to continue to act as if he is an enemy of Israel is both counter-productive and tactically wrong, and will only alienate from both Israelis and American Jews those conservatives who continue to act in such a manner. If Obama makes a wrong move, then call him on it. But encourage him to — as a friend of Israel — do what has to be done to secure the future of the Jewish state.